Come and Get Your Whoopin'
For the Atlanta Hawks home is where the hurtin' is.By Jon Cooper
It wasn't that long ago that the Atlanta Hawks would have looked at a loss like their March 1st 88-87 loss to the powerhouse Cleveland Cavaliers as a building block to future success.
That loss to the Cavaliers, only the Hawks' seventh of the season at Philips Arena in 27 games, so ticked them off that they responded immediately.
They haven't lost at home since, having reeled off six-straight wins heading into Thursday night’s game against Dallas. The streak has come against quality competition, including Detroit, New Orleans, Utah and Portland, who combine for a .593 winning percentage (as of 3/17) and brought a combined 24 consecutive games worth of winning streaks into Philips Arena (Portland had won only one in a row but had won six of eight).
That big four left Atlanta with a combined winning percentage of .000, and the resolve to start a new winning streak — they have gone a total of 5-6 since leaving the ATL.
It might be time to change the nickname of Philips Arena from The Highlight Factory to Woodson's Woodshed, as that’s where Hawks are taking their visitors. They have only one home loss halfway through a month that could have broken a lesser team.
But not this group. They've set the bar high.
"It's expected," said two-guard Joe Johnson, who is doing what's expected of him, taking over games late with his scoring (he's hit for 30 points in each of the last four games). "We've been pretty good here at home so we expect to come out and take care of our home court."
"There's a little swagger that we've got to us that we know we belong," added point guard Mike Bibby. "It happens when you win. Winning makes a whole lot of difference."
It doesn’t even matter that they’ve lost one of their starters, Marvin Williams, to injury. In fact, the team is 13-1 in games started by Mo Evans, who has temporarily taken Williams’ spot.
Taking care of three 40-game winners, a potential Eastern Conference playoff opponent and avoiding a trap game against one of the East’s weak sisters speaks volumes about this team's consistency. It shows something they've been trying to tell anyone who would listen all season long, that they are serious contenders. In fact, they're getting a little ornery at constantly being asked to prove themselves.
"We're not here to prove nothing to nobody," said Johnson. "We're coming out to play hard and have fun for ourselves. We could care less what anybody else thinks of us. As long as we come out every night and compete, that's all we ask."
"We've proven that we are able to beat the best of the best teams and we're able to compete with the elite teams in this league," said power forward Josh Smith, who is averaging 17.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks over the last five games. "So I don't think we have anything to prove on that note. We've just got to play our game. I don't think we'll worry about anything if we do that."
Playing their game means playing with confidence and defending. So far in seven March home games, the Hawks, who are 33-9 when holding teams under 100 points, have allowed only one opponent to even reach 90 and have held their opponents to 20 points or less in eight of the 14 second-half quarters.
“We’ve definitely learned that we need to raise our level of play and really focus in on defending and rebounding,” said center Al Horford, who has stepped up, scoring 14.2 points and 10.4 boards over his last 10 games.
“Last year we just had lapses where we kept on losing focus and maybe got off track,” he added. “This year we know what it takes to be one of the better teams and we're really taking care of the games that we're supposed to take care of. You're going to see us playing at a high level because there's going to be so many good teams that are going to be coming in here back-to-back. We're excited about the challenge.”
That challenge escalates at the end of March, as Philips sees a murderer's row of San Antonio (March 25), Boston (March 27) and the Lakers (March 29).
"It's our schedule. It is what it is," said Woodson, whose team is 12-3 at home the last two years in March. "When we looked at the schedule coming into the season, there were some months like February, where we only had three home games and eight road games and we had to figure out how we were going to win games out on the road. We went 4-4, which was very respectable for our team. It doesn't matter who you're playing. My whole ideal is if you can take the Celtics to seven games there's not a team you can't beat in this league. I don't care if it's on the road or at home. Sure, it's better at home because you're comfortable at home. You're playing in front of your fans, on your own floor. We've got to take them one game at a time."
While the Hawks refuse to admit they're looking past the day on the calendar, they can't help but have one eye on late-April and May, something they're getting a taste of now.
"The good thing about the good teams coming to town is it's going to be perfect for us to get ready for the playoffs," said center Zaza Pachulia. "It's going to be playoff intensity. They're good teams and they don't want to lose. They're playing for something too. No games will be easy. So that's a good thing. We're going to be used to playoff-intensity games for the playoffs."
"Nobody ever said it was going to be easy," added veteran guard Flip Murray. "Even though we have a lot of home games, it's going to be tough. We have some great games coming up against some great teams so we've just got to be prepared to step up to the challenge."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta